Don’t Trust Charters More than a Sweaty Used Car Salesman (A Citizen Research Template)

Recently I have noticed a new snare from corporate charter cheerleaders. The approach is for them to ask you to tell them which corporate charters school you love/like. This is a clever trap. My response is, “Why don’t you tell me the worst offenders on the issues of equity and access and tell me which ones we should close?” Then wait for the pregnant silence.

How do you evaluate a charter school? Should the only consideration be test scores?… or a school’s marketing brochures?… self-reported college application and acceptance rate? Or maybe we should be okay with a particular corporate charter because they are just the “it” school in the media and for foundations this year. In most states there is data readily available to assess charter schools. In fact, this blog was created two years ago to respond to KIPP press release about a peer reviewed study that took issue with African American student attrition out of KIPP and other charters in Texas. Someone recently brought to my attention that back in March KIPP again responded to the study due to this editorial that was eventually published in the San Antonio Express News. Their response was that it was “biased” data. How data provided by the state of Texas via a public information request can be “biased” is still eluding me. But data is power, and so I hope to encourage citizens via this blog post to do their homework.

In the 2014 NEPC Teach For America (TFA) brief we created a citizen research template to empower communities to study and evaluate TFA in each community. Because I often received requests from across Texas and the nation about various charters, I wanted to create a citizen research template to assess charter schools. This will be a work in progress— I don’t expect that this post will get it perfectly right. However, as a first draft I want to put together a list of research questions that citizens can ask to obtain qualitative and quantitative data to assess any charter school. Your can collect personally and obtain from federal and state data that may or may not contradict a charter schools’ “internal” data. Similar to the TFA research template, I believe it is important to verify charters’ “internal” data independently via federal or state data sources that are typically readily available online or via Freedom of Information requests. Because I loved his piece so much, many of the equity and access questions are based on Kevin Welner’s Dirty Dozen.

Charter Citizen Research Template


  1. What is the college success rate of graduates? (not applications or entrance, but completion of first year and then graduation)
  2. What type of curriculum is offered?
  3. How do student perform on exams?
  4. Who does the school particularly cater to?

Teachers and Leaders

  1. Are all school staff state certified for their positions?
  2. What is the turnover of school staff?

Equity and Access

  1. Who does the school cater to relative to local traditional public schools? (ELL student, At-risk students, Special Education) How do the proportions of these populations compare to traditional public schools situated nearby?
  2. What is the evidence that the school advertises to attract students who speak Spanish and are low-income families? Are the advertising images attractive to diverse students or only a “college-prep” demographic?
  3. What conditions are placed on enrollment? Is it as hard to enroll in a particular charter as it is to vote in Texas for a person of color?
  4. Do they require mandatory essays?
  5. Special pre-enrollments only for certain students?
  6. Require placement tests for certain programs?
  7. Mandatory character references?
  8. Required parental visits?
  9. Brief enrollment periods?
  10. Are social security cards and birth certificates required for enrollment?
  11. Do you have to declare a disability at enrollment?
  12. Do they charge substantial fees for Pre-K and then give preference to those student for continued enrollment?
  13. Does the charter require a particular grade point average to enroll?
  14. Do parents have to commit to a certain number of volunteer hours during the day?
  15. Are there complaints online from parents who have been steered away from the school when trying to enroll or encouraged to leave the school because their student has special needs?
  16. Does the school offer the services that special needs students require?
  17. Have parents posted comments online that their students were threatened with grade retention if they did not leave? Or been counseled out because “they aren’t responding” to the context of the school?
  18. Does the charter have higher discipline referrals and explusion rates than nearby traditional public schools nearby? How do discipline rates vary by race/ethnicity and gender?
  19. Does the school have higher rates of mobility and attrition than nearby traditional public schools? How do mobility and attrition rates vary by race/ethnicity and gender?

In sum, don’t believe the slick promotion materials and “internal” data any more than you would a sweaty used car salesman. Gather the quantitative data and also qualitative data by talking to parents of students, teachers and administrators who are currently located at the school AND who have left the school to get a full picture of a charter school’s context.

Ever talk to a former KIPP teacher? 😉 I have, and what they will tell you, you won’t find in KIPP’s brochures and marketing materials.

I believe we must also find ways to share this data nationwide because not every parent has the time necessary to collect and analyze the readily available public information— a charter Yelp! so to speak.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s post on charter click here.

p.s. Whatever I missed, please leave your ideas in the comments and I will add them to the citizen research template as necessary.

p.s.s. Is there a volunteer out there that can translate the Charter School Citizen Research Template into Spanish better than I can?

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  • This Charter Citizen Research Template can help many people in evaluating charters in every schools. It will be a good reference on choosing a school to enrolled on.


  • Including Charter Citizen Research Template was a wise move. I can used this template for my thesis. Thanks for sharing.


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  • As an education psychologist I would encourage you to add questions about the school climate that they create. They should be collecting data on the levels of engagement of their students at the beginning and end of each year. If they are not maintaining engagement then they are inducing more symptoms of psychological distress and decreasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the learning and teaching.

    There is only one charter school network that I am aware of that has peer-reviewed published data on their ability to maintain engagement: EdVisions Charter Schools.
    Here’s the references:
    Van Ryzin, M. J. (2011). Protective factors at school: Reciprocal effects among adolescents’ perceptions of the school environment, engagement in learning, and hope. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 1568-1580.
    Van Ryzin, M. J., Gravely, A. A., & Roseth, C. J. (2009). Autonomy, belongingness, and engagement in school as contributors to adolescent psychological well-being. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 1-12.


    Don Berg

    Founder of Schools of Conscience
    Building the nurturing capacity of K-12 schools.

    Free E-book:


  • Thanks Julian – I also hope we will have a database for all of this information, as it is critical. An additional question to ask is how much of their budget is spent directly on the classroom versus the administration and other costs? Two of the Gulen charters in Los Angeles were going to be closed because of their spending for costs outside the school — and in fact for other states. A judge granted a reprieve for some reason (parents?). We have a database here in Los Angeles provided by the University of Southern California that purports to give this data on every charter in California. I am doing my own research on how much the CEO of each company makes. There are many other important questions we could ask but I really like yours. Will you help us once you are in California?


  • One thing I would add would be a question about whether the school “backfills” its seats when a student leaves the school (for whatever reason)? It seems that many charters are able to drive up their proficient test score numbers by having smaller and smaller cohorts over time, and many of the students who leave “happen” to be the worst test takers, what a surprise. Public school cohorts tend to remain the same over time, or even grow in some cases as they absorb the students who have left the charters.


  • Great questions to ask of any public school. How much of this data currently is available in Texas for all public schools.

    Also, how much of this data is available for colleges and universities in Texas?
    Many of these would be great questions to ask about colleges & universities as well as K-12 public schools.


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  • Not a Public School Teacher

    Great idea! Including the TFA template along with it is also important. (Did I miss that link or is the NEPC report the template?) That’s because TFAers on provisional certificates should be seen as red flags, since they are novice teachers-in-training who were given a free pass, since they’ve only had 5 weeks of preparation in summer school. Of course, this is due to TFA’s lobbying efforts and political connections, as states have been granting TFAers provisional certificates so that districts can hire them, and charters (and neighborhood public schools) may report TFAers on provisional certificates as “highly qualified” under NCLB.


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  • Yes, great points–Charters are simply a way to scam the poor again by the richer again, what else is new ?? Again !!


  • As someone who works at a charter school, I do agree that it is important to look beyond the brochure to see what happens in the school because some charters do not deserve to continue to exist, regardless of the rhetoric. However, as a charter advocate I have two thoughts in response to your list.

    First, are you willing to acknowledge that charters, like all public schools, will have faults and will not be models of perfection? or are you advocating for citizen researchers to condemn successful charters that are doing many things right for not being perfect?

    Second, you should also advocate that parents look into traditional public schools serving in the same locations as the charters they are investigating. The notion of exposing the truth behind what is going on in public schools is a good one, but it should be applied across the board, not just to charters, because too many traditional public schools continue to fail to meet the benchmarks you’ve set down for charters in your template. What good is it to close down a charter that isn’t meeting expectations if we ignore the neighborhood public down the street that has the exact same problems? To do otherwise is like going in to a doctor with four broken limbs but only asking them to mend your legs. You fixed one problem but the other one still remains.


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  • You have to check this editorial out that the executive director of the Delaware Charter School Network put out. She said exactly what I thought she would, but the comments are the best!


  • Reblogged this on Exceptional Delaware and commented:
    Comparing charters to sweaty salesmen! Classic! I think more and more people are starting to wake up to the failed promise of charter schools. It won’t happen overnight, but damn, they’ve gotten a lot of bad press this year.


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